My love for spices and growing herbs had me easily fell in love with our neighboring country’s cuisine, specifically Thailand. I have tried almost all Asian restaurants in the city and kept coming back, declaring it as my newest comfort food. I am blessed to have been exposed to Thai cooking, and got to eat Thai dishes at least once a day – thanks to the small community of Thai students living in our apartment and a small canteen that serves authentic Thai dishes (yes, we have a Thai cook!). I have noticed too that through the years the Asian section of Cebu supermarkets kept on improving, giving quite a good space for Thai ingredients.
You can cook your own Thai dishes as long as you know the basic principle of balancing disparate tastes that defines the unique Thai flavor: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and spicy. The ingredients are locally available, aside from few main staples that are only found in that country. The combining of flavors may look complex and ingredients too foreign, but learning these basics will make your next journey to Asian restaurant a bit comforting and familiar.
The following are the essential ingredients used in any Thai cooking:
1. Lemon Grass, or tanglad in our local dialect. Ever wonder where the local restaurant led by Urbinas got their name? This is the most ubiquitous among all Thai ingredients, being used in soups, stir-fry, salads, and even teas and beverages. The stalks are thinly sliced or chopped and pounded, or sometimes bruised or crushed to release the distinct citrusy aroma. The leaves are used for soups while the stalks are for stews and salads, just like how we use it when we cook our tinuwa, discarding the leaves when serving.
Lemon grass is always available in our local supermarkets. You may find them rolled and bundled. This is also available in my potted garden, making sure I always have a fresh supply of tanglad when needed.
2. Basil – my knowledge about basil have further expanded when I started eating in Thai restaurants. There are three varieties that are widely used by Thais, and one of it is named after them: Thai Basil, Holy Basil and Lemon Basil (note: I have a separate previous post about these basils, links are posted here: post1 post2). In Cebu, the most readily available of all basil is the sweet Italian basil used in pasta sauces, but sometimes can be used in Thai cooking as ready alternative. The basil varieties used by Thais have stronger aroma and the flavors and smell lasts even in longer cooking time. Since most of these are not available in our local supermarkets, I suggest you plant it and have a ready supply when needed. Good thing, potted Thai basils are available too in our supermarkets now.
Holy Basil (bai grapow) has a clove-like tastes. It is often used in cooking compared to other varieties.
The Lemon Basil (bai menglah) (or Sangeg in our local dialect, we have a lot of this growing wildly!) has a lemouny flavor and tiny leaves.
The Thai Basil (bai horapha) is the most commonly used variety for cooking, and has anise-like flavor like the sweet Italian basil, that is why it is sometimes called sweet Thai basil. It is used in stir-fries, salads, soups, red as well as green curries. My favorite of all fried rice is the basil fried rice, infused with lots of fresh thai basil.
3. Green and Red Chillies. Spicy dishes characterized most of the Asian cuisines. No wonder we have regions in our country who loves this small yet powerful pungent spice, and I think this is the common denominator to most of us Filipinos – we love that hot, fiery, stingy bite inside our mouth.
Long red chillies are used in red curries while the green one are for green curries. Bird’s eye chillies (or siling labuyo) is the hottest among the chillies. Because of its ubiquity in Thai cooking, Thais are making ready-made chili pastes called Nam phrik, which is similar to Indonesian or Malaysian sambals. These pastes are prepared by crushing chilies together with shrimp paste (our bagoong) and various herbs and spices like lemon grass, coriander and garlic. A variety of chili paste called nam phrik pao is used in Tom Yum, made of sweet roasted chilies.
4. Galangal – is a relative of ginger that is common in Thailand, but slightly differed in taste. Galangal is more peppery and spicy than ginger. There were accounts I found online that they had successfully propagated galangal in their backyards, but not yet commercially produced. Galangals are found in Asian sections of local supermarkets either in dried or paste form. Mine, I was lucky I was given a bag full of dried galangal by a Thai friend straight from Thailand. You can use ginger rhizomes if galangal is hard to find, but using galangal is the most authentic way in attempting to cook a Thai dish.
5. Kaffir Lime or Makrut Lime Leaves – This is a lime tree endemic in Thailand and some Asian countries (though I also read some online blogs claiming they have grown successfully this lime tree in our country). This fruit is similar to our lime dayap, with rough green skin but the wrinkles are more prominent and the flavor is a bit different. The leaves are odd in shape, just like an hour glass, and is the one used in Thai cooking. Fortunately my supply was given by a Thai friend, but you can buy this one in the Asian sections of our local supermarkets or in some deli shops just like what I found in Bacolod recently. The leaves impart that aromatic citrus flavor, so distinct that you cannot find any replacement for it.
6. Fish Sauce – we call this Patis in our local dialect, no not the Cebuanos preferred soy-vinegar dipping sauce, but the salty, golden dark colored liquid made out fermented fish. According to Wikipedia, it is a staple Thai ingredient and imparts a unique character to the food.
One thing I found unique in Cebu is their less use of fish sauce in any Cebuano cooking, or even as a condiment. I grew up in a Kapampangan household where patis is a staple condiment. Soups will never be complete without patis and a squeeze of some ubiquitous kalamansi.
In Thai dishes, their famous condiment is nam pla phrik, or simply fish sauce with chilies, partnered with lime. I see a personal cultural connection with Thais on this instance.
7. Coriander – it can never be Asian without coriander. The roots, stems, leaves and seeds are used in Thai cooking (see related blog post about cilantro here). It is mainly used in salads and as garnish to soups, eaten raw and fresh. The seeds are used extensively in the preparation of sauces and pastes. We can buy fresh corianders in our local supermarket. Im pretty sure you will have a difficulty identifying a coriander from parsley, just rub a small portion and if it is too aromatic, that is not coriander.
8. Turmeric – a rhizome of ginger family, we call it luyang dilaw in our local dialect. It has milder flavor and aroma than ginger but has louder deep yellow-orange color that can stain your bare hands and utensils. It is commonly used in cooking java rice (hence the color) and chicken tinola, and believes to have many healing properties. In Thailand, it is used in making yellow curries, in stir-fires and soups, as well as desserts and snacks.
Of course other spices like shallots (onions) and garlic are widely used in their cooking
We are all Asians, though we Filipinos colonized by Spaniards, Japanese and Americans and influenced primarily our cuisine and culture. We can always trace back our roots and relate this to our neighbors through the use of some spices like lemongrass and turmeric. All the ingredients identified above are available to us except the kaffir and galangal. It is just a matter on exposing ourselves to the flavors of our neighbors and learn that we too can cook their food the way we want it.
So the next time when in supermarket, try spend time in the Asian section and explore some of these ingredients. It is worth keeping them in your pantry.
Experiment. Don’t be afraid to try new flavors!
In the other note, Im already itching for my South East Asian Food Tour, hopefully this year or early next year if time permits! There’s another newly opened restaurant in Guadalupe named Little Saigon, Big Bangkok Fresh Asian Streetfood and cant wait to explore it!